“The Wild, cruel animal is not behind the bars of a cage, he is in front of it” – Axel Munthe
We had been driving around for almost 2hrs before we came across the animated group. “You just missed her! She just went past with her three cubs”.
Whilst an ardent animal lover, I’ve always steered clear of zoos as I find it quite depressing to see them confined. So when the opportunity arose to see a wild tiger, I grabbed it. I was in Jaipur and had a couple of days to spare, so I decided to head up to Sawai Madhopur which is a couple of hours by train. This little town derives it livelihood from Tiger tourism. It is the gateway to Ranthambore National Park, one of nine tiger sanctuaries set up by the Indian government to protect the significantly dwindling tiger population.
Being India, with its land and population pressures, the very reason the tiger was under threat, I had low expectations of the park. I expected the reserve to be small crowded, with a few weather beaten trees, and a couple of mangey looking tigers, it at all any were to be seen, surrounded by a gazillion vehicles, and generally, largely exploited.
At 5am I was ready and waiting, camo pants, green jacket, and even a silly green hat that I wasn’t ready to wear yet (or ever!). The hotel staff were phenomenal – the manager lent me his binoculars. I had booked a ride in a canter (big open air vehicle that can seat about 15 people), as the gypsies (smaller, like a jeep) were booked out. The gypsies tend to book out early as people hope to get a more personalized experience. These are the only options as no private vehicles are allowed and numbers into the park are restricted. This was my first surprise.
A quick twenty minute ride later, we were at the entrance of Ranthambore National Park. We were allocated a zone, my second surprise. The park is divided into 8 zones forming tiger territories. 4 gypsies and 4 canters are allowed per zone, to ensure that it does not become like a drive through zoo. I was pleasantly surprised, and continued to be as we progressed through. The park is set in old fort. We passed through the gate, a high bricked archway covered with bits of moss and lichen, and largely obscured by the large Banyan tree that enshrouded it, making it seem part of the it part of the landscape, resplendent peacock perched atop it. Apparently the tigress could often be found lounging in in the gateway, under the arch, and shaded by the Banyan. I could just picture it. What a sight that would be! The king of the jungle guarding his jungle kingdom.
As we drove through the park, passing tranquil lakes scattered brush, we spotted groups of sambar deer, sheetal, spotted deer, monkeys and peacocks, but, after a couple of hours, the real prize still remained elusive. With less than half an hour remaining before we had to leave the park (this is controlled by the park authorities to ensure that the park is left undisturbed to the tigers for a large part of day, another commendable and unexpected thing), we resigned to the fact that we probably wouldn’t see one, and made our way to the gate. Approaching the gate we saw a couple of gyspies with their passengers all peering intently into the thicket. My heart started to beat a little faster, only to be told, as we arrived on the scene, that a tigress had just been past with her three cubs five minutes ago! We waited patiently, all eyes trained on the dense foliage where she had disappeared into. Nothing.
With only ten minutes remaining, there was a rustle in the bush, and there she was – at first only glimpses of burnished orange highlighted by the backdrop of greenery. The excitement was tangible. After a few moments, comfortable that we were no threat, she sauntered out the bushes and onto the road, she with all her avid admirers in tow.
There was a bit of squealing going on in our canter, which I wasn’t happy about, but I guess this is the compromise. The overzealous tourists’ money supports the infrastructure that gives the tigers their space and peace, and still, they meant well, they were just excited. For my part, while I managed to abstain from an outward reaction, I was ecstatic. She was beautiful and healthy, and looked like she knew this was her domain. What a sight! She lingered in the clearing, glancing around lazily, giving everyone ample opportunity to admire her, and we did. Then it was time to leave – I left feeling very lucky to have glimpsed this magnificent creature, not behind the bars of a cage, but wild and free!